The other Maxwell case

To be Robert Maxwell's daughter-in-law was trial enough, but for Pandora Maxwell there was worse to come. Suzanne Moore wonders how she stood by her man
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The Independent Culture
When Pandora Maxwell leant out of that window and shouted at the throng gathered outside her house: "Piss off, we don't get up for an hour. I'll call the police," only to be told "Madame, we are the police," she established something that her husband, Kevin, has never been able to - a reputation for conspicuous honesty. With her pale blue eyes and careworn face, Pandora, at the time pregnant with her sixth child, was also, it is said, able to influence the judge in her husband's favour. Pandora who appeared without vanity, who spoke her mind, who wore battered old cardigans and hippy hats, who was the only person who could stand up to her husband's brute of a father, Robert Maxwell, was a woman of integrity. Why was she standing by her man? Why does anyone?

Despite the acquittal, there will always be those who regard Kevin and Ian Maxwell as blameworthy. The degree of guilt attributed to them varies, but they have been judged guilty by the media and the public at large. Kevin admits that he made mistakes, but that these were not "criminal decisions". Are we to believe that he was so cowered by the beatings that he was given as a child by his father that he cannot be held accountable for his actions? Are we to accept that the practice of business always involves a degree of dishonesty? Certainly in the programme that was shown last night, The Trial of Kevin Maxwell, he seems as surprised as everyone else that he is not now serving time in Brixton prison.

The film, made by Nadia Haggar, is an incredibly gooey and manipulative piece of work. If the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, then the burden that was passed from Robert to Kevin is then passed on to Kevin and Pandora's own children. We see them weeping at the prospect of Daddy going to prison. When did we last see on television the child of a common or garden burglar allowed to express how it feels to have your Dad locked up? Is it only middle-class children who suffer so? In the midst of all this suffering and with a brave smile etched across her thin face, Pandora suffers most of all.

While Kevin takes an awfully long time to answer every question put to him - "He is a master of hiding his feelings," says his wife - she can't help blurting out exactly what she thinks. She is refreshingly straight- talking. While her husband rambles on about his father's death, Pandora comes right out with it. "I think he was shoved." As she effs and blinds around the house, moaning about having to go to her son's "sodding trumpet- playing in the Starlight parade", Kevin, a seemingly irony-free zone, accuses her of "making a crisis".

As harassed as she is, painting budget Christmas decorations, carrying around sleepy children who clearly think God and Grandpa Bob are the same person and wonder whether Grandpa Bob has gone to "bad heaven" as opposed to "good heaven", Pandora is pregnant again. "I like babies. The children like babies. It's not perfect timing." Cynics would argue that it was perfect timing indeed, and part of Kevin's attempt to win sympathy; the riding of mopeds to court, the conspicuous downsizing of the household, the wearing of ill-fitting hair shirts, and now another child on the way, all looked like PR.

Yet Pandora is that rare thing, someone who appears beyond such trickery, beyond such brutish manipulation, because she genuinely does not appear to care what others think of her. She survives by being herself and in that upper-class English way is delightfully batty. Her brood of children, her domestic chaos, her ability to survive whatever is thrown at her make her impervious to sniping. If she believes her husband innocent, or just not that guilty, then by implication so must we. She is an unexpectedly fragrant wife whose loyalty to her husband is without question.

She is the woman who in the midst of a nightmare must still pick up the kids from school and whose struggle to get through the day while her husband is on trial turns her into a kind of single parent. For while she holds everything together, just about, one wonders what would happen to all that strength were it not directed entirely towards her family. "One of these days in another life," she says wistfully, "I'm going to end up running the country" - and you know exactly what she means, and instantly understand Kevin's attraction to her. Her strength protects him, just as his father's terrified him. Yet in contrast to his father's monstrous ego, she appears in the film to have almost none.

It is rare to see a woman so unencumbered by image, and this is why we warm towards her. It is why we warm to the Fat Ladies who advise us to eat only things made of game, alcohol and cream and don't give a toss about what they look like or what they say. One day, one hopes, when her children are grown up and Pandora no longer has to play the loyal wife and mother, she might come into her own. Who knows, she may even one day tell us the whole truth about the family she married into. If anyone can, she can; and in another life, she just might.

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